In addition to providing much-needed supplies, the delivery demonstrated a clear win for Russian propaganda and was the latest act designed to highlight Russian magnanimity and power. Perhaps most significant, however, is what this episode reveals about the United States’ woefully inadequate response to the global pandemic and its decline as a humanitarian superpower.
For nearly a century, the United States assumed a leadership role in international humanitarian relief, offering valuable economic and material aid in the aftermath of natural disasters, famines and conflicts across the globe. While the United States is still one of the world’s largest donors, foreign aid cuts have become commonplace in recent years, reflecting the Trump administration’s “America First” approach. But humanitarian aid has long helped the United States accrue international power and influence. As America’s reputation as a humanitarian superpower declines, Russia has attempted to fill the void, adopting the same tactics that once boosted the global prestige of the United States.
Although it hasn’t solely been a force for peace in the world, the United States has a long and storied history of international humanitarian assistance, dating to the early Republic. In 1794, Maryland petitioned Congress for reimbursement after the state provided relief for French citizens seeking refuge in Baltimore after the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue. After a devastating earthquake in Venezuela in 1812, the U.S. government sent food to Caracas. The Irish potato famine (1845) prompted impassioned debate on the American responsibility to aid the less fortunate. Critics reluctant to commit U.S. dollars to foreign populations questioned the constitutionality of American generosity. Yet reformers and missionaries remained steadfast in their support of the world’s impoverished, advocating for assistance in the aftermath of famines in India and Russia and other natural disasters throughout the 19th century.
Early American foreign aid projects were primarily voluntary, dispensed in response to isolated incidents. But the turn of the 20th century marked a growing political interest in connecting international altruism with American national self-interest. Relief helped facilitate U.S. expansion and reinforce American prestige on the global stage. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet was preparing for the last leg of its world tour when an earthquake destroyed the Sicilian city of Messina. The president sent all 16 warships to the devastated city, requesting that the Navy provide food and medical aid and assist in the rebuilding. Roosevelt seized the opportunity to simultaneously garner goodwill and demonstrate the strength and power of the United States.
The scale, scope and nature of U.S. international relief changed dramatically during World War I, with the American Red Cross assuming a leading role in relief and recovery, the establishment of the American Friends Service Committee and the creation of Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium. Humanitarian assistance offered an alternate method of engagement when neutrality remained the official position of the U.S. government, and officials quickly seized on the value of this aid as a tool of diplomacy. Eager to demonstrate their patriotism and willingness to sacrifice for others, American citizens voluntarily regulated their consumption and donated their time and money to assuage European suffering.
After World War I, the United States continued to provide food and other resources to Europe. This relief offered evidence of American benevolence and sincerity, but it also served U.S. interests in its pursuit of political and economic stability. Hoover led the postwar American Relief Administration, which provided aid to recovering nations and conducted politically controversial operations during the Russian Civil War. These efforts opened markets for U.S. businesses, garnering praise, but generated criticism when aid was withheld for political reasons, including Hoover’s refusal to feed Bolshevik states.
Guided by the successes and failures of nongovernmental organizations during World War I, American humanitarian assistance took a variety of forms during World War II. In addition to the economic and military aid offered to Allies under Lend Lease, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the War Relief Control Board to coordinate the foreign relief programs of several hundred private agencies. These efforts dovetailed with a growing acceptance of U.S. hegemony. Publisher Henry Luce famously called on Americans to forgo isolationism in an editorial on the “American Century.” Believing the U.S. government should embrace internationalism and use its economic and military power to promote democracy across the globe, Luce pressed Americans to assume the role of “good Samaritan.”
In Roosevelt’s eyes, future peace and prosperity depended on international cooperation. Created in 1943, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was intended to be the international embodiment of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” but it also allowed policymakers to instill American values in a rebuilt Europe and Asia. Bankrolled largely by the United States, the UNRRA provided food, shelter and clothing, and it assisted with the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of displaced people.
If World War II shepherded the United States’ transition to humanitarian superpower, then the Cold War solidified it, institutionalizing foreign aid as a key feature of U.S. foreign policy. President Harry S. Truman believed the United States — guided by American values of generosity, empathy and goodwill toward those in need — was uniquely positioned to use its economic and military strength to assist in Europe’s recovery. His support of foreign aid, however, was shaped by humanitarian principles and national security concerns. Truman’s State Department believed prosperity served as a bulwark against communist influence. Foreign aid, whether in the form of food, funding or technical assistance, would help contain communism.
The psychological significance of humanitarian assistance was not lost on the Soviet Union, which sought to counter the United States with programs of its own. During the Berlin Airlift (1948-49), the U.S.S.R. offered food to Berliners in an attempt to portray themselves, the blockaders, as saviors, feeding those left hungry because of American arrogance and obstinance. The limited shipments were no match for the propaganda victory of the Allied airlift, which delivered tons of food and coal and laid the foundation for a new Cold War battleground, one where the U.S.S.R. and the United States wielded humanitarian assistance to jockey for power and influence.
Following the American lead, the Soviet Union launched its own program of economic aid for the developing world, including a highway program in Afghanistan and the construction of a steel mill in India. Ultimately, the Soviet programs were no match for the United States. During the final days of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev accepted U.S. humanitarian aid in the form of surplus chicken legs (also called Bush legs) to combat food shortages.
The relationship between the United States’ foreign policy aims and humanitarian interests was never easy. The uncomfortable marriage between the two launched the nation to the fore of international relief efforts in the second half of the 20th century. Embracing the role of humanitarian superpower, the United States capitalized on the propaganda potential of benevolent diplomacy. Never purely altruistic, American aid boosted national prestige and served security interests.
The Russian delivery of humanitarian aid to the United States in April was a soft-power move reminiscent of the Cold War. It was preceded by a shipment of medical supplies to Italy, delivered in crates covered with stickers that read “From Russia With Love.” Like the U.S. shipment, the Italian delivery met with controversy when the equipment’s suitability was questioned by Italian officials. Putin’s optimism regarding the Russian response to the coronavirus has recently dimmed, and he acknowledged, “There is nothing to boast about.”
Regardless, it’s clear that the United States no longer positions itself to offer a salve to a suffering world. Indeed, this episode begs the question: Are there any humanitarian superpowers left? And if not, perhaps now is the time to recognize Roosevelt’s dream of not just international cooperation, but also collaboration, serving the interests of all humanity, rather than the powerful few.